If you’re among those who have had the good fortune of meeting someone with whom you immediately spark a mysterious romantic connection, drawn to that person by a seemingly irresistible force beyond all rational explanation, then the intensity with which director Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore underlines the bonds betweens its characters will be familiar.
Even those without such memories should understand some measure of this experience when Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) decides to raise her son Laurent (Marin Gerrier), who has Down syndrome, even after his father decides to leave her if she doesn’t give the baby up to an institution. Laurent becomes her life, and she attentively watches over him determined to see him live to a ripe old age after she reads that average life expectancy for those with Down syndrome is age 25. This is in 1960s Paris.
The movie intercuts between Jacqueline and Laurent’s story and the life of Antoine (Kevin Parent), his ex-wife Carole (Héléne Florent) and new girlfriend Rose (Evelyne Brochu), in modern-day Montreal. In flashbacks we learn how Antoine and Carole fell in love as teenagers, pulled to each other at first sight, spent 20 years together, and had two daughters. Then one night, at a party, Antoine spots Rose and soon decides to surrender himself to her. He feels that same connection he felt long ago with Carole, only this time even more intensely. But, Antoine asks his therapist, how can someone have two soul mates?
Meanwhile a different sort of love triangle develops when 7-year-old Laurent, who is as consumed with devotion to his mother as she has been to him, meets Veró (Alice Dubois), a new girl at his school who also has Down syndrome. They become inseparable, often literally so. While at first Jacqueline encourages the relationship, she comes to believe that her son is becoming obsessed with Veró and that that obsession is pulling him away from her.
The connection between the two storylines isn’t made explicit until late in the film, but there are parallels throughout. Most notably, both Laurent and Antoine listen to the same tune, “Café de Flore,” over and over. Antoine, who works as a nightclub DJ, admits to it being relatively “banal,” and yet every time he hears it, the music causes him to feel the purest joy of life, for reasons he can’t fully understand. Valée favors quick intercutting of glimpses of each character’s past and present, sometimes jumping from Laurent to Antoine’s life without warning, occasionally having a character cross (for a split-second) from one story into the other. The result is a number of scenes that play like fever dreams and serve as a reminder that our past is something we’ll always carry with us.
The more cynical among you may think the revelations of the final scenes, and the decision to which the heartbroken Carole comes after she seeks out the meaning behind the intense nightmares she’s been having, a bit hokey. I found that, within the film’s ultra-romantic portraits of obsessive and jilted love, they work beautifully.
Lovers often wish to believe that theirs is a relationship long destined, part of some mystical design laid out ages ago, lasting far longer than any of us can fathom. Café de Flore believes it too.